Getting Inside Hard-To-Open Toy Packaging

fromKQED

Parents hate it and it's bad for the environment, so why are so many toys wrapped in layers of plastic wrap, twist ties, and clamshell boxes that practically take a chain saw to open? A packaging expert digs into the reasons.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And some of those gifts we've been talking about are toys wrapped in layers of plastic, secured by twist ties and stuffed into clamped shell boxes that practically require a chainsaw to open. Parents hate it, and it's bad for the environment, so why all the packaging?

Reporter Amy Standen went to find out.

AMY STANDEN: We're at a big-box store, just South of San Francisco. Lola Cleveland(ph), age eight, is holding a pack of mini skateboards. They're called Tech Decks.

Ms. LOLA CLEVELAND: These are big in my class, I guess.

Ms. ELLE ROSSETER: Why are these big in your class?

STANDEN: That's Lola's mom, Elle Rosseter(ph).

Ms. CLEVELAND: Well, I don't know, but a lot of people are very obsessed with them.

STANDEN: Toys have gotten so complicated, in fact, sometimes only Lola knows what we're looking at. Exhibit A: the Paperoni.

Ms. CLEVELAND: I think you put in the color you want, and then you chop it down to size, you put on a little plate, and then you put them on to there. They show you the steps to make all that different stuff.

STANDEN: And the packaging is on steroids. Take the Polly Pocket Sparkling Pets Dress Up. Each shoe, head band, tiny pink electric guitar has its own molded compartment, and every toy talks.

Unidentified Man #1: All units, fire at will. We've got you outnumbered.

STANDEN: Again, Lola's mom, Elle.

Ms. ROSSETER: Yes, they're very over-packaged, lots of plastic, lots of unrecyclable plastic. It's hard to unpackage a toy these days because they're tied, and then you have to cut them and wrestle with them a little bit before you can actually get the toy out of the box.

STANDEN: So, what if toys were packaged more like cereals, simple, efficient, easy to open? Simon Gainey heads a packaging design firm in Philadelphia. He says the difference is that cereal companies have spent decades distilling their brands into simple recognizable symbols.

Mr. SIMON GAINEY (Founder and Owner, Competitive Innovation LLC): So, I'm looking for blue of Rice Krispies and that's all I'm going to look for. Everything else I'm deselecting.

STANDEN: And that worked because cereal we buy over and over again. Toys, we buy once, which puts toy companies into a packaging arms race to get kids' attention. But modern toy packaging also gets at a very basic way that kids are different from adults. Think you're at a grocery store looking at a box of organic crackers.

Mr. GAINEY: You probably want a package that really leverages that authenticity and talks about it in a story like there's an organic farmer with wheat especially grown in a special mill.

STANDEN: In other words, you're responding to a mood, a metaphor. Kids, not so much. More and more, says Gainey, they want to experience the toy itself right there in the store.

Mr. GAINEY: Everything is about interactivity and noise, and sound, and moving path, you know, asking to get actually involved with the toy at the shelf. So, you know, that toy trend kind of has led the world to look for a package that enables you to do that.

STANDEN: And what the world found is plastic. Evermore elaborate molded plastic containers that showcase each and every component. And if the overall package is pretty big, well, sometimes that doesn't hurt either. A number of companies and toy stores contacted to explain the reasoning behind big elaborate packaging did not respond. So, we turned to an expert.

Mr. CHRIS BYRNE (Toy Reviewer, Timetoplaymag.com): Bigger is better, more is more.

STANDEN: Chris Burn runs the toy review Web site, timetoplaymag.com.

Mr. BYRNE: That translates into because you're giving your child a big box, you love your child more, and then that gets communicated down generation after generation, and it becomes entrenched in our cultural perceptions.

STANDEN: Showing all that love costs money, more than you might think. Here's Mark Murray, head of Californians Against Waste.

Mr. MARK MURRAY (Executive Director, Californians Against Waste): You're paying for the product. You're then paying for the raw materials because certainly the manufacturer didn't get those materials for free. But then there's the end of life management of that excess packaging, and you're paying that as well.

STANDEN: In other words, the cost of dumping it at the landfill or processing it at a recycling plant. Package designer Simon Gainey says the toymakers are starting to respond to these concerns and make simpler packaging. But he adds, you can understand why they haven't quite adopted the cereal model yet.

Mr. GAINEY: Why would you want to hide it away in this cardboard box?

STANDEN: Well, maybe you just prefer the cardboard box. If so, says Gainey, you're probably too old to be shopping for toys anyway.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen in San Francisco.

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